PROVO - It's an accepted truth that speaking a new language requires that you first must listen. For the Western ear learning Arabic, that maxim reveals itself with almost every syllable.
Whether she's running through a list of plural nouns, or placing her hand on her lower throat to help students locate a particular sound, Audrey Bastian is accustomed to asking her Provo High School Arabic students the same question time and again: "Can you hear the difference?"
To the layperson unfamiliar with Arabic, those differences are many, not to mention difficult. Where do you want to start? Arabic reads and writes from right to left. Whole canyons exist between its written form and spoken practice. Its dialects are so bewildering that both the CIA and the American Council For Teaching Foreign Languages rate it, along with Russian and Finnish, at the very top of languages taking the longest time and most effort to learn. The running joke about Arabic is that it becomes far easier to learn after your first 10 years of instruction.
Why, then, spend hours learning the finer points of Arabic script on erasable pads when you could be learning Spanish or French, languages requiring four times less the effort for proficiency?
As far as the 12 students in Bastian's class are concerned, Arabic is where it's at.
Two were turned on to it by a family member in the military. One hopes to visit Egypt one day with her sister. Another became so swept up learning the language that his father ordered books and decided to study along with his son. For all of them, however, it's Arabic's exotic appeal that beckons.
"I may understand only half the words in songs we hear in class, but it's still beautiful," said 17-year-old Aaron Holloway.
For Utah lawmakers, who allocated $480,000 toward the study of "critical languages" in a surprise bill that passed the Legislature last week, beauty is beside the point. For them, the number of Utah students studying Arabic, along with Russian and Chinese, is crucial to the nation's economic and national security. In prying open the state's wallet to such an initiative, they're also following the advice of the federal National Security Language Initiative, which also includes Farsi, Hindi and Korean on the list.
That money could translate into more Utah students versed in Arabic, and more opportunities for teachers such as Bastian. Utah boasts a number of high schools offering Chinese, but only two high schools - Provo and Lone Peak in Highland, plus Lehi's charter middle school Renaissance Academy - offer Arabic.
Even by those numbers, Utah far outpaces other states. Brigham Young University Arabic professor Kirk Belnap estimates that fewer than 1 percent of high schools nationally offer Arabic instruction, while 10 percent of universities and colleges do so.
More than six years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, those figures either surprise or appall. As director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center, created and funded by the U.S. Department of Education in 2002, and based at BYU, Belnap would like to see the number and quality of Arabic-language programs everywhere improve. His efforts, along with those of Maggie Nassif, the center's assistant director, have been central to Arabic's early start in Utah classrooms, said Bastian, who will finish her first full year of Arabic instruction at Provo High School this spring.
In the pipeline for a launch this fall is the center's "Arabic Without Walls," distance-learning program allowing anyone, high school student or not, to start study of the language.
"Arabs believe deeply that Arabic is the hardest language to learn in the world," Belnap said. "But if you believe that as a teacher, you have a way of making that come true for students. One of our biggest challenges is helping students and teachers realize that students can learn a lot of the language if you believe in them. A lot of teachers tend to coddle students learning Arabic."
The prospect of more Arabic in schools appeals both to those in government, who feel it serves national security interests, and those in education interested in bridging cultures.
"There's a serious need to open kids' eyes to the fact that people are people. A lot of people outside the U.S. think America is this awful place where people get shot in schools or restaurants, so it's important for us to overcome the stereotype that all Arabs are terrorists," Belnap said.
Gregg Roberts, world language specialist with the Utah State Office of Education, welcomed last week's last-minute shot of foreign language funding, regardless of what Utah high schools choose among the federal government's menu of "critical" languages. At the moment, he noted, Arabic has more foreign policy consequences than other choices, however.
"When the U.S. arrived in Baghdad, out of 1,000 embassy personnel only 33 spoke Arabic," Roberts said. "And of that 33, only six were proficient."
* If signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., SB41 would provide $750,000 toward dual-immersion language programs, which includes $480,000 toward the study of "critical languages."
* Twenty Utah high schools and junior highs already offer either Chinese and/or Arabic. The bill would enable another 40 schools to also offer Chinese, Arabic and Russian.
* In addition, it would help create 15 elementary school dual-immersion programs in Chinese, Spanish, French and Navajo. Beginning in kindergarten or first grade, students in the programs would spend half their time learning in English and the other half learning in the other language.